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Sacred Heart Area Historical Society has been collecting stories for 25 years

For more than 25 years, the Sacred Heart Area Historical Society has been working hard to save, display and share the history of the city and surrounding townships. Housed in an old church building, the society provides not only exhibits and a research library, but has also been instrumental in saving the Sacred Heart Hotel building.

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The Sacred Heart Area Historical Society calls the old Ebenezer Lutheran Church home. The society moved into the building in 1997.
Shelby Lindrud / West Central Tribune
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SACRED HEART — As the first railroad tracks were being laid in Renville County in 1878, the outlines of several villages were also being platted, including Sacred Heart. More than a century later, in 1996, the Sacred Heart Area Historical Society was founded to save and preserve that same area's history.

"Several of us in the community were going to auctions and seeing so much of our history being sold. And it was going outside of the area," said Sonja Thune, longtime executive director of the Sacred Heart Area Historical Society . "We wanted to capture that history."

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School artifacts on display at the Sacred Heart Area Historical Society in the Old Ebenezer Lutheran Church in Sacred Heart.
Shelby Lindrud / West Central Tribune

When the idea formed to create the Sacred Heart Area Historical Society, there was no standing collection of artifacts to grow upon or a building to call home. In what Thune called a miracle, at the same time the society was being created, the Ebenezer Lutheran Church was looking for a buyer. The city of Sacred Heart and Farmers & Merchants Bank purchased the building, and the new historical society moved into the church in February 1997 under a 99-year lease between the society and city.

"After some consideration, we chose this site over several other options," in part because of its location on U.S. Highway 212, Thune said. "It definitely had advantages."

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Sacred Heart Area Historical Society Treasurer Marilyn Agre, left, and Executive Director Sonja Thune stand in front of an exhibit at the society's building on U.S. Highway 212 in Sacred Heart on Oct. 6, 2022.
Shelby Lindrud / West Central Tribune

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Filling the museum with history

The mission of the Sacred Heart Area Historical Society "is to collect, preserve, and disseminate knowledge about the history of the Sacred Heart area" and that area includes not only the city, but Ericson, Hawk Creek, Sacred Heart and Wang townships, along with a piece of Flora Township.

In the museum, there are exhibits about the area's schools, businesses, churches, organizations and military service. In the society's research library, which is located in the basement of the old church building, there are shelves and shelves full of books and binders with photos, newspaper clippings and other material about many aspects of the area's history.

"We did start with nothing," Thune said, but once the society was established and had a home, the artifacts and documents started to roll in. "Everything started coming to us. People would drop boxes off anonymously."

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The Sacred Heart Area Historical Society has a well-stocked research library, including binders full of family histories, in the basement of its building.
Shelby Lindrud / West Central Tribune

The society is proud of its research library and all it holds. It has a collection of glass negatives from local photographers O.S. Myhre and Ole C. Sparstad, newspaper archives and a photo gallery of all the houses in Sacred Heart. Then there are the family histories — binders full of information about families from the area.

"We have the family binders, which perhaps has the most interest to the researchers, people coming in here wanting help to tell their family stories," Thune said.

The research library is always growing; staff are continually adding things to the research binders. Families are also encouraged to bring in their own photos and research to add.

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"I go through the Renville County paper, I go through the Granite Falls paper, I go through the Willmar paper, pick out obituaries, weddings, baptisms if there is any, sports things, accidents some times," said longtime board member and treasurer Marilyn Agre. "I cut everything out that has anything that has to do with our area."

Thune and Agre said there has been a growing interest in people researching family history. Some of the reason might be that genealogical research is more mainstream now with Ancestry.com and shows like PBS' "Follow Your Roots." The society has even held a few classes in partnership with the Renville County Genealogical Society to help people get started. The society is always happy to help people with research, including opening the library up by appointment.

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A variety of military uniforms and artifacts are on display at the Sacred Heart Area Historical Society.
Shelby Lindrud / West Central Tribune

In the past, the society ran quarterly programs about various historic subjects such as the area's churches or country schools.

Over the last few years, the society has taken the history out into the community. A big draw has been informational visits to historic sites and parks, such as Vicksburg. Thune said they've been very well-received and the society is planning for more.

"It is our history, just as much as what we have here in the library in the interpretive exhibits," Thune said.

Saving the buildings of history

In addition to artifacts and research, the Sacred Heart Area Historical Society has also played a major part in the preservation of two historic buildings in Sacred Heart.

The first is, of course, the church it calls home. Over the years, the society has done multiple renovation projects on the building, including a new roof. This year, the lighting will be upgraded, paid for by a grant from the Minnesota Historical Society.

"We preserved the the building by turning into a museum," Thune said.

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The Sacred Heart Area Historical Society has been able to restore the Sacred Heart Hotel's impressive front facade and is now working toward repairing the rest of the building, photographed here Oct. 6. 2022.
Shelby Lindrud / West Central Tribune

The second building granted another chance is the Sacred Heart Hotel, located a few blocks east of the museum on Highway 212. The hotel has a long history in the city, starting in 1914. However, a century later, it was vacant, in tax forfeiture and falling apart.

In an attempt to save the historic structure, the city of Sacred Heart and the historical society worked together to purchase the building. The society now owns the hotel, and has been working since 2015 to restore and rehabilitate the property.

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The first major project, a complete roof replacement, was started in April 2015.

A grant was also awarded in 2017 to complete a reuse feasibility study, to see what uses the hotel could fill. Thune said the current plan is to create a space for additional assisted living units in the city along with community space.

"We needed a plan for the future," Thune said.

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Restoration work continues on the Sacred Heart Hotel, funded through grants and money from the Sacred Heart Area Historical Society.
Shelby Lindrud / West Central Tribune

In 2019, the first phase of the reconstruction was completed, including restoration of the building's front facade, porches and landscaping. Next up is the restoration of the building's brickwork, windows, doors and other exterior and interior work.

The hotel has also been listed on the National Register of Historical Places.

Thune said all the work is being done at a high level, so the space could be used for assisted living if the historical society can find someone to operate it.

"We have that vision, but it is to be seen yet," Thune said.

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A loom at the Sacred Heart Area Historical Society is one of many exhibits on display to the public as of Oct. 6, 2022.
Shelby Lindrud / West Central Tribune

A home for Sacred Heart's history

Thune believes it is important for all cities and towns, no matter their size, to have a museum or historical society. Only then can that area's history be preserved for the public at large. They also provide a place for local artifacts to stay in the local area, instead of being shipped to a museum or society farther away.

"People want their things in their area," Thune said.

While the Sacred Heart Area Historical Society has lost members over the years, it does boast a membership of more than 400 people.

The community participation in the society, whether it is attending a program or donating to the society's general fund or the hotel project, makes it possible for the society to keep preserving history.

"When people come here, they are just amazed by all the information we have on their families. Things they didn't even know about," Agre said. "Just seeing the joy of them finding out about their history makes it worth it."

Shelby Lindrud is a reporter with the West Central Tribune of Willmar. Her focus areas are arts and entertainment, agriculture, features writing and the Kandiyohi County Board.

She can be reached via email slindrud@wctrib.com or direct 320-214-4373.


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